We all know the importance of sleep for our health, wellbeing, and let’s face it, our sanity. But with the chaotic pace of modern family life, the never ending to-do list, and the constant siren call of Netflix, how can we possibly get the good quality sleep need?
We cultivate good sleep hygiene, that’s how!
A term coined by sleep clinicians in the 1970s, “sleep hygiene” refers to the environmental and behavioral practices that we put in place to promote better quality, deeper, and more restful sleep. Just as in body hygiene, you can have either good or bad sleep hygiene. This can directly effect your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and how rested you feel upon waking. By creating the proper environment and habits to encourage rest, we can set ourselves up for a healthy night’s sleep.
Environment: In order to effectively reduce cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and turn on natural melatonin production (the “sleep hormone”), we need to mimic natural lighting conditions. This means dimming the lights toward the evening and keeping our homes (or at least our bedrooms) cooler. The blue lights from electronic devices (think phones, computers, and televisions) keep cortisol elevated, stimulate the brain, and impede melatonin production, keeping us awake. At sun down, you can use blue light blocking glasses to help reduce the harsh electronic lighting and you can also use your device’s built in “Night Shift” feature to automatically reduce the blue light emission.
During the sleeping hours, your bedroom should be as dark as possible. Removing all electronics from the bedroom (yup! That means no TV or charging phones!) and installing blackout curtains will help keep stimulating light to a bare minimum. If you use your phone as an alarm, get a simple alarm clock with a dimming display and put it face down when you go to sleep. That way, if you wake up in the middle of the night you won’t be tempted to play on your phone until you fall back asleep.
There are also many studies about the EMFs (Electromagnetic Fields) emitted by our electronic devices causing disruption of the communication between the cells of our body. This can be detrimental to the hormonal production happening when we fall and stay asleep. It’s better to just keep them out of the bedroom!
If you’re unable to clear your room of artificial light pollution (perhaps you live in a studio apartment or in a dorm room), you may want to consider using a sleep mask or even a weighted sleep mask for light control plus some Deep Touch Therapy.
Beyond light and temperature control, your bedroom should be a restful haven where only 2 activities take place; sleep and… you can guess the other. That means all reading, computer tasks, mail, kids homework, and clutter shouldn’t be in there! It’s going to be very difficult to clear your mind and sleep when you have a pile of dirty laundry in one corner, a box of items waiting to be taken for donation in another, errant Legos from your child, and today’s unopened mail on your nightstand. Seeing unfinished work raises cortisol, blocking melatonin and interfering with your ability to fall (and stay) asleep.
You can take your bedroom environment up a notch with an essential oil diffuser to circulate some calming aromas such as lavender, ylang ylang, or sandalwood. Houseplants are also a wonderful addition to a calming bedroom, adding oxygen to the air and filtering out toxic pollutants. NASA conducted The Clean Air Study in 1989 and came up with a list of the most effective indoor plants for filtering the air.
Timing: —Not only should we be going to sleep and waking up around the same time daily, for maximum sleep payoff we should also be hitting optimum rest hours. We know that we should be getting that magical 8 hours every night, but our bodies reap the most significant hormonal secretions for recovery during the hours of 10pm-2am. By aiming to get to bed by 10pm nightly, you’ll take advantage of peak melatonin production. Melatonin and cortisol have an inverse relationship; when one is high, the other is low. We know that cortisol is a necessary hormone during the day, but when it’s too high it can lead to inflammation, weight gain, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, and chronic disease. So take advantage of your natural hormonal rhythm by getting to bed early, CONSISTENTLY (that means even on the weekends!)
Daytime Habits: What you do during the day also plays a role in how well you sleep at night. When your alarm goes off, you should get out of bed the first time. Hitting the snooze repeatedly will mess with your morning hormone production. Open your curtains and let in natural sunlight. Morning sun exposure helps to regulate and reinforce your circadian rhythm, as the vitamin D your body synthesizes from the sun signals daytime. Since we spend so much of our days indoors, we tend to be low on vitamin D which is crucial for not only our sleep but our immune function and bone health. If you take a vitamin D supplement, take it with breakfast. Some gentle stretching, a few deep breaths, and a big glass of water should help get your morning started right.
Avoiding caffeine after 2pm will also go a long way in helping you drift off at a proper time at night. The half-life of caffeine is 5-6 hours, so you want to ensure plenty of time between your last cup of coffee or tea and bedtime to avoid any extra stimulation.
Your evening meal should be at least 3 hours before you plan to go to bed to avoid issues with digestion or discomfort. And as we all know, the bulk of your water intake should happen before this time also to avoid unnecessary trips to the bathroom during the night.
Alcohol consumption should also be avoided for optimal sleep. While it is true that a glass of wine or beer can initially make you feel sleepy, studies show that it actually results in shortened REM sleep cycles (the deep, restful sleep we all need) and leads to more restless sleep.
Evening Habits: Just like young children, adults thrive on a consistent bedtime routine no matter how much we try to avoid it. You may not need 3 readings of Good Night Moon and 45 hugs, but if you think about it, there are things you do nightly that signal to your body that it’s time for sleep. It could be washing your face, brushing your teeth, a sip of water, and a scroll through Instagram until your eyes can’t stay open any longer.
In order to encourage deeper sleep, we need to create a routine that supports it. An hour before bed, all electronic devices should be turned off. A more calming activity would be reading or sipping a small cup of non-non-caffeinated herbal tea. Chamomile, lemon balm, valerian root, and passionflower, which is traditionally used to calm a racing mind, are all good choices.
You could also take a few minutes to “Brain Dump” to help clear your mind. Brain Dumping is simply writing down anything that’s on your mind, from tomorrow’s to-do list, to a stressful situation during your day, to your grocery list, to your prayers—anything and everything that is in your head, dump it out onto the paper and leave it on your kitchen counter to review in the morning if needed.
This would be a great time to do some deep breathing, gentle stretching, or yoga. Save your regular exercise for the morning hours so that your body doesn’t get heated in the evening. Your body’s core temperature drops by a degree or two at night, so cool is the key. You can also “force” this drop in temperature with a warm bath about 30-60 minutes before bed, allowing your body to get warmer and then cool down to bring on sleep (add 2 cups of epsom salt as a bonus for a nice dose of nerve-relaxing magnesium).
After this would be the time to wash your face, brush your teeth, use the restroom, and hit the sack!
Extra Tips: If you’ve cleaned up your sleep hygiene in every way possible and still have trouble falling or staying asleep, consider this:
-Nap with Caution: A short, 10-30 minute “power nap” between 1-4pm may help daytime fatigue. Anything longer than that can lead to “sleep inertia,” that unpleasant grogginess that can last the rest of the day. A longer nap may also mess with your circadian rhythm. If you find that day time naps mess with your night time sleep (like me!!), then try laying down and meditating or doing some deep breathing for 10 minutes to give yourself an afternoon energy boost.
-Progressive Muscle Relaxation: If you find that you take a long time to fall asleep once in bed at night, you can try Progressive Muscle Relaxation to reduce muscle tension and bring on sleepiness. Starting at your feet, breathe in and tense the muscles in your foot for 5-10 seconds (hard but not to the point of cramping). Breathe out and completely relax your feet. Relax and breathe for 10 seconds and then move on to your calf muscles. Continue up your body, one muscle group at a time. Notice how much more relaxed each muscle feels after you’ve released the tension.
-Plant Medicine: If your circadian rhythm is out of whack and you need a little help getting that sleepy signal back, turn to plants! Though the sleep hormone melatonin is secreted at night by the pineal gland in our brain, it is also found in several edible plants. Tart cherries contains ample melatonin and sipping a small glass of 100% tart cherry juice in the evening can help induce sleepiness. Sweet cherries have 50 times less melatonin than tart ones (and dried cherries appear to have none) so make sure you get the right juice.
-Magnesium: Widely known as the anti-stress mineral, magnesium helps to relax tense muscles, reduce pain, optimize blood pressure and circulation, balance blood sugar, calm the nervous system and so much more. Due to high stress lifestyles, poor diets, and even poorer soil quality, it’s estimated that 80% of the population is deficient in this critical mineral. While you can get magnesium from foods such as almonds, dark leafy greens, avocado, and bananas, many people benefit from a supplement. Talk to your doctor about a magnesium supplement for you or your child.
-Admit Defeat: If you’ve been laying in bed for more than 15 minutes and you still can’t fall asleep, get up! Laying in bed and fighting yourself to sleep can cause cortisol to rise when you think of how much less sleep you’re getting. Remember that when cortisol is up, melatonin is down. So instead of tossing and turning, get up and do a calming activity outside of your bedroom until you feel sleepy again. Read a book, journal, write out your to-do list, drink a small cup of herbal tea—anything non-stimulating and non-electronic should help. When you start to feel sleepy again, head back to bed. You can also do this if you wake up during the night and can’t fall back to sleep. By getting out of bed for an activity and returning when you’re sleepy, you’re reinforcing that your bedroom is for sleeping only and eventually, your body will trigger sleep as soon as you climb under the covers. Chances are you’ll catch the sandman this time.
**I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV! Please read my disclaimer and consult your doctor before trying any new remedies, natural or otherwise. If you have consistent sleep issues, please see your doctor to rule out any hormonal or nutritional deficiencies or underlying medical issues.
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